The Twins on Tuesday night got in the mix of a reported 3-team blockbuster trade that will send Red Sox superstar Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, and has Minnesota exchanging a promising young arm for pitching staff stability.
Kenta Maeda will be the newest member of the Twins when the deal is completed. Pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol will pack his equipment bag and head east on Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers, Florida, after being traded from the Twins to the Red Sox.
I considered sticking to the standard format, 5 thoughts, for this column. Instead, this piece presents 5 hot takes on the deal from the perspective of the Twins.
Maeda has pitched 4 seasons with the Dodgers, an average of 147 innings per year, and an MLB career 3.87 ERA. Here are the 4-year averages for the soon-to-be-32-year-old:
Strikeout rate: 26.4%
Walk rate: 7.3%
He throws with his right hand and he uses both his fastball and his slider for about one-third of his offerings, per Brooks Baseball. After that he goes to the changeup and he’ll show a curveball. Maeda’s changeup got its most extensive MLB work in 2019, jumping from about 15% of all his pitches to a little more than 23%. His average fastball velocity is 92 mph, and knock 8 mph off that for his slider, which was his best pitch in 2019, according to value metrics.
Not for nothing, Maeda has pitched for a great team in each of his 4 seasons in the Majors, which means he’s got a healthy dose of postseason experience. He started 3 postseason games in his rookie year, 2016, and since then he’s been a force out of the postseason bullpen for the Dodgers: 22 innings, 4 earned runs (1.64 ERA), with 27 strikeouts, 5 walks and only 1 home run allowed. (And that lone home run came in the 2017 World Series in Houston against the Astros, who were later caught cheating.)
The replacement level on the Twins’ was likely some mix of bullpen and starting arms, a young and unproven starter, or veteran bounceback candidate Jhoulys Chacin. One of those starting options could have been the guy he’s replacing on the roster, Brusdar Graterol, even if the Twins hinted that they’d use Graterol in relief. So that’s the heart of this deal, for me: this trade is less about the Twins opting for the highest ceiling imaginable on the pitching staff, but rather the highest floor. Maeda raises the level of that floor by being a proven, reliable pitcher with a healthy arm and a pretty good track record.
Over the next 4 years of Maeda’s contract, he’s set to earn a total of $12 million, as part of an 8-year, $25 million agreement. He’ll earn $3.125 million per season on the deal, which would pay him through his age-35 season, at which point he could become a free agent if that’s what he wants to do.
So the Twins basically are trading 6 seasons of whatever the future holds for Graterol, in exchange for the next 4 seasons of a guy who projects to be something like a 4.00-ERA guy this year, all at the grand total of a $12 million salary. (What would the market have paid Maeda this winter if he had been a free agent? What would you have paid?)
And to be clear: Not every deal needs to be about money, at least not primarily. I would guess that if you’re a competing franchise in a multi-billion dollar industry you could afford to pay some pretty handsome salaries with an eye on winning a lot of baseball games. The upshot of ‘paying’ with the rights to a prospect in exchange for a good pitcher who doesn’t earn a lot of money is simple. It lets you take shots with other parts of your roster. Having a Kenta Maeda contract (and a Max Kepler contract, for that matter), allows you to pursue a Josh Donaldson. It allows you to sleep soundly after extending a one-year offer to Jake Odorizzi for nearly $18 million.
I think Maeda is underpaid and I think he solidifies the Twins as favorites to win the A.L. Central. I should add that I thought they were favorites before the trade, ever since they hired Josh Donaldson.
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He’s 21. He’s exciting. He has a 100 mph fastball. And he has an injury history. All four of these statements are true, and to me they represent the shortest possible summation of what Graterol meant to the Twins team in 2020 and beyond.
After the deal had been reported Tuesday, the analysis website FanGraphs posted their updated Red Sox prospect rankings, with Graterol at No. 1. The upside is apparent. And so, too, is the variance. The range of outcomes for Graterol seems to me to be pretty vast. I wouldn’t be shocked if he became a top-of-the-rotation starter, leaning on his big fastball and slider, while developing a third pitch in time. I also would not be surprised if he settled into a bullpen role, where the range of outcomes stretches from star late-inning reliever to injury bust.
That the Twins were willing to deal one of their top pitching prospects says a lot about what they think of Graterol. Because they could well have not traded for Maeda. They will say that it’s a painful decision any time you give up a good prospect – and a human being with mutual investment throughout the years – and that’s true. But I do wonder about their true assessment of Graterol’s future.
With a Tommy John surgery and a shoulder injury (2019) on his medical records, I think the downside outcome should be considered here, as much as the upside outcome, which we’ll agree is great. As much as any number we could point to for 2020, I look past the triple-digit fastball and focus instead on the double-digit innings available.
2016: Missed year
2017: 40 total innings
2018: 102 innings
2019: 70 2/3 innings
From the Twins perspective, it’s a risky trade. Welcome to life in Major League Baseball.
The move is to forego some possible future value in the form of a pitching prospect who might come into his own as he grows up. Let’s ignore injury risk for one second. Would a median outcome for Maeda’s 32-year-old season be more helpful than a median outcome for Graterol?
Yes, you might say, but the future could be much brighter for Graterol. And you’d be right. That’s the essence of this trade. The whole point, as I see it, is to take on the risk that you get burned in the future in exchange for the greater chance to repeat as division winners in 2020. And maybe more.
The Twins had already signed up for this risk, by the way. They dealt some prospects in July for a couple of relievers that they thought would help them. They signed some quality veterans this winter. They took a bit of a gamble (in my view) on Michael Pineda. They did the same for Rich Hill (different gamble in his case). Then they signed a 34-year-old to the richest free-agent contract in franchise history when they brought in Josh Donaldson.
That’s a very real risk, and there’s no way to avoid it in pro sports if your goal is to win. The Twins could have been more cautious. To do so might have been to risk a strong young core going home empty-handed in late-September. And who knows what happens one year out, as the White Sox look to close the gap on the Twins in the standings. Calculating – and having the stomach to tolerate – risk is the name of the game in the big leagues.
Graterol could make this trade look dumb in 5 years. Maeda could make it look savvy in October. I don’t know which will play out, and I’d guess neither do the Twins. I think those are the risks you accept when you’re coming off 101 wins, a dud of a postseason performance, and you have a talented core of players in their mid-to-late-20’s who have not yet struck it super-rich.
This is what a winning “window” looks like.
I actually like the depth that the Twins have on their pitching staff. I like their bullpen a lot. And if Michael Pineda and Rich Hill just hit expectations, I think this is a group that gets you to October.
I do wonder if the game changes in October, though, or if that’s mostly a media narrative. If the Twins feel they still need that ‘ace’ to do battle in the postseason with superteams like the Dodgers (yikes), Yankees (also yikes) and Astros, they have the necessary pieces to consolidate talent and get something done. I’m now more curious than ever to see how they handle that.